September 2020

10 unexpected aspects of space travel

Behind the Book by
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Terry Virts shares 10 of the wildest, most surprising aspects of going to space—and he ought to know. He’s done it twice!

I had two goals for How to Astronaut: to make the reader say “Wow!” and to make them laugh. I didn’t want to write another typical astronaut book—say, an autobiography or a technical guide. I wanted a book that would be easy reading—something for the beach or the nightstand, a kind of literary comfort food. Here’s a taste, with 10 things about space travel you may find interesting, surprising or funny.

1. Learning Russian 

Whenever a new astronaut shows up at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, they probably think they’re pretty good at a few things. They were either the hotshot jet pilot at their military base, the top doctor at their hospital or the nerdiest computer nerd at their engineering job. But one thing I learned during my time as an astronaut is that whatever you think you’re good at, there’s always someone better. For example, I thought I was pretty decent at foreign languages until I had to learn Russian, which was probably the hardest thing I’ve done in my life. It’s a required language because the Russians are such important partners in the International Space Station (ISS) program, and it ended up being something I loved; but I must admit, the first 10 years were the hardest.

2. Chez Terry

When I signed up to be an F-16 pilot many years ago, and when I joined the astronaut corps some years later, there were a lot of things I expected to do. Cutting women’s hair was not one of them. But when Samantha Cristoforetti was assigned as my Italian crewmate, that was exactly what I had to learn to do. It was the most hair-raising thing I did in my seven-plus months in space. You’ll have to ask Samantha if I did OK, but I never heard any complaints.

3. Rodent research 

Everyone knows that astronauts do science in space. After all, that is the purpose of the ISS and the reason that our 15-nation partnership has spent tens of billions of dollars over decades on the station program. Honestly, though, this fighter pilot never expected to dissect mice in space—but that’s exactly what I did. Ultimately it was worth it because the rodent research we did is very important for the pharmaceutical industry and will hopefully lead to better medications down here on Earth.

4. The red button

 I wish you could have seen the look on the face of the poor guy at the Kennedy Space Center who was giving my astronaut class their first tour of Cape Canaveral. It was an innocent question that I asked: “What’s that red button for?” The answer was a little surprising, to say the least. It was the button he would use to blow up my space shuttle, with my butt on board, if we went off course during launch. It reminds me of a song: “Don’t ask me no questions, and I won’t tell you no lies.”

5. Potty talk 

Well, what can I say? There are several chapters in How to Astronaut on this topic. Frankly, it’s the most popular question we get as astronauts. To put it succinctly, yes, astronauts do wear diapers.

6. Making movies in space

When I learned that we would be filming an IMAX movie during my mission, I was beside myself with joy. Helping to make A Beautiful Planet was my favorite thing I did while in space. Plus, I got to learn the craft of filmmaking from my director, Toni Myers. It’s a skill I’ve transitioned into my post-NASA career.

7. Doing the deed

This is the second most popular question we get. Have astronauts done it in space? You’ll have to read the book to find out, but as for me and my time on the ISS, it was a long 200 days . . .

8. What to do if you’re stranded in space

It’s a bit of a morbid subject and not one that we talk about very often, but if your rocket engine doesn’t light up to fly you back to Earth while you’re in orbit or on the moon, you have the rest of your life to figure out what to do.

9. What to do with a dead body 

I don’t remember discussing this subject in any of my NASA training, but the astronauts we fly are not exactly spring chickens, and in any case, humans don’t have a good record of being immortal. On top of it all, the space environment isn’t the safest place to be. If we continue to travel beyond our planet, future space crews will eventually have to reckon with this question.

10. Juxtaposition between the sublime and the mundane

This is the best way I can describe space flight. During the first minutes of my first shuttle flight, when I was busy helping to fly Endeavour as her pilot, I saw the most amazing sights out the window—things humans weren’t meant to see. I experienced this dissonance a thousand times during my seven months in space: 99% of my time was spent on mundane, mechanical tasks, but 1% of the time I felt like I was seeing God’s view of the universe.


Author photo credit Jack Robert Photography

Terry Virts

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How to Astronaut

How to Astronaut

By Terry Virts
ISBN 9781523509614

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